Should Children Discuss Their Non-Theism with Other Children? September 12, 2009

Should Children Discuss Their Non-Theism with Other Children?

Dale McGowan overheard his children Delaney and Connor having this conversation and it worried him:

From the next room, I heard Delaney (7) sharing a conversation she had with a friend at school. “I told her I didn’t really believe in God, but I was still thinking about it. She said she didn’t know anybody else who…”

“Lane…” Connor said, then sighed with exaggerated patience.

She stopped. “What?”

“Lane, you really shouldn’t talk about religion at school.”

“Why not? It’s interesting.”

“You shouldn’t talk about it because you gain nothing and it gets all your friends to hate you.”



“Nuh uhh.”

“Yes. It does, Lane.”

It took every bit of my strength to stay in my chair.

I had at least three reasons to be concerned about this…

Dale talked to his children about this to get more information and it turns out there is a bit more to this story.

The moral is clear, though: Children should be open to discussing their religious beliefs. The more they do that, the more comfortable they become about the subject.

If more children did this, maybe we’d see a future in which criticism of religion isn’t such a problem. Religion needs to become like politics in this way — a topic we don’t shy away from debating and discussing with friends, family, and even colleagues. The less taboo around the subject, the better.

(via The Meming of Life)

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I remember from back in high school (way back in the 70’s) when I came out as an atheist to the students, a group of young-earth creationist classmates of mine took it as a school project to try to save me. It led to some humorous conversations. I would ask them why God created dinosaurs before He created the universe. They never really answered that one to my satisfaction. I don’t think anyone hated me and I didn’t loose any friends that I already had.

  • anothermike

    The more kids talk about their beliefs, doubts, fears and so on, the better. I spent countless hours discussing all sorts of philosophical questions with my Christian friends back in the 50s when Communism was the official demon of our culture here in the USA. They quoted the bible and I quoted Hoffer. We had a good time too, and learned a lot. We also seriously considered each others’ arguments, and then came back later with new points of view of our own. The real enemy of reason is silent, sullen true-believing, or bellicose preaching; being so sure you have all the answers that your mind goes blank. And even though religiosity has proven itself to be a killer over and over again throughout history, we non-believers can also fall into the trap of lock-stepping if we aren’t willing to talk and, just as important, listen. I have no illusions about converting believers into more rational thinkers, but if we are reasonalbe then we should act like it, and open discussion among young kids is a helluva good start.

  • You live in a strange country.

  • littlejohn

    I think it depends on the kids’ ages. Children below a certain age (15 or 16, maybe) invariably parrot what their parents say and are incapable of thoughtful conversation about politics, religion and any other emotionally charged topic. Nothing’s more annoying than listening to a 12-year-old evangelist who obviously has no idea what his own words mean. I suspect the young atheist is equally annoying. I used to know a young kid, the son of mililtant atheists, who greeted his parents’ visitors with “there is no god.” The parents never seemed to understand why that struck most of us as unhealthy.

  • Scott Turner

    A seasoned high-school teacher once said to me (then a new teacher)”we don’t understand things, really, until we try to teach them.”
    Kids’ conversations help clarify their thinking and questioning about everything. It’s all good and there’s nothing they shouldn’t talk about.

  • @littlejohn: As a kid who grew up questioning in a Catholic school I had very strong and independent thoughts on religion that were certainly influenced by my parents, but no more than they were influenced by everyone around me and everything I read. My parents were VERY religious back then and by ages 6-7 I was pretty sure the whole religion made absolutely no sense to me. I have known plenty of elementary school children who can have a rather intelligent debate on many aspects of faith, many think hard about it and are far more willing to question it than indoctrinated adults.

    I was often told to keep my thoughts to myself and that did far more damage than repercussions from my actual statements, even though my peers did not agree with me for the most part.

    The only way for things to become tolerated and accepted is for children to grow up with them as “normal”. The best way to make that happen is for children to share what may make them different with their friends. It’s a lot like the philosophy of making sure your children encounter other ethnicities, children of gay parents, and other minority groups so they know that we’re all just people and grow up to be tolerant and accepting themselves.

  • littlejohn: I’d drop the age a bit if I were you. My son’s friends are mostly on the atheist/agnostic spectrum, most are from at least nominally Christian families, and most came out as atheists at about 12.

    Intelligent kids tend to reason on these things a bit earlier than average, I guess.

    hoverFrog: You’re right!

  • I hate the term “militant atheists”. Unless they’re actually carrying assault rifles and trying to force people into their way of thinking, they’re not militant. “Outspoken” perhaps, or “assertive”, even “belligerent”, but “miltant” should be reserved for those actually engaged in violent activities.

    I think children, and even adults, should learn to discuss issues like religion and politics without becoming angry and defensive, and I think many of our problems in this country would be easier to solve if we regularly and actively engaged those with differing points of view. If children can learn to talk about their religious points of view and still get along, they’ll learn a valuable skill for discussing those types of issues as adults.

  • ddr

    I remain impressed with the way my daughters school handled this issue last year. The school is a fairly small charter school but has a wide range of religious beliefs. It has fundamental Christians, Rastafarians, Muslim, Bahai, New Agers, and of course a bunch of middle of the road Christians. Last year a fundamentalist Christian was going on about some aspect of her faith and my daughter said that she didn’t think that God or the Devil were real. This set the fundamentalist girl off into a round of “I rebuke you” and “you are going to hell.” The teacher didn’t have much of a reaction at the time and just kind of distracted everyone by focusing them on another project. But the next week she sent everyone home with a reading assignment. It was a small book explaining what secular humanism was and how people could be good, moral people with out God.

    The best part was that I don’t think there was any back lash from the parents.

    It didn’t really slow down the one girl. She is learning disabled and has fundamentalist parents. So she is has a double disadvantage. But it at least exposed the 7th grade class to the idea that not everyone believes in a god or gods and that is ok.

  • Julie Marie

    I wonder about this myself. My son came home asking about what was at the center of the earth. after some discussion about molten rock and pressure he asked if the devil lived there. My turn to ask the questions – his after school program counselor had told the children if they “flipped the bird” they’d have to go there with the devil in the proverbial lake of fire.

    I went ahead and told him I don’t believe in the devil, but some people do, and that’s okay. But I made sure he understood no lake of fire, no devil–just the disapproval of Mom and Dad — would befall him if we heard he’d been “flipping the bird.” At his age, the thought of our disapproval is enough to keep him in line.

    But I’m sure there’s more of this sort of thing to come….just yesterday he asked if “gay” was bad. Sigh. He’s only 7!

  • Stephen P

    “militant” should be reserved for those actually engaged in violent activities.

    “Militant” can refer not just to people actually engaging in violent activities, but also to threatening or inciting violence.

    That doesn’t, of course, make the term “militant atheist” any less bad. Definitely one to be avoided.

  • good point Stephen. I have yet to hear an atheist threaten violence or incite it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  • I always talked about my atheism/thoughts on religion when I was 12 – 14 because I was trying to figure everything out. I wasn’t parroting things my parents told me because they basically told me nothing. And now most of those people I talked to, who all were raised in religious families, are atheists.

    I’m a bad influence.

  • Wendy

    Quite simply, children should discuss EVERYTHING with other children!

    No, sorry, let me rephrase that. EVERYONE should discuss EVERYTHING with EVERYONE.

  • No, sorry, let me rephrase that. EVERYONE should discuss EVERYTHING with EVERYONE.

    Not to be a stinker, but there’s some things I hope my friends never tell me.

  • Cranky Mama

    Our oldest son is almost 9 and we’ve had many conversations about religion – all started by questions from him. He knows we do not believe in god.

    Last school year he came home and told us about a conversation he had with a classmate – she made a comment about the world being made by god. He said he told her “Look Kayla it’s fine if you believe that, but I have to tell you I don’t believe any of that stuff.” She became quite upset and told him he was wrong – to which he responded “That’s your opinion, and I’m fine with that – and you should be fine with mine, too.” The two of them remain good friends, and the topic has never been raised between them since.

    If only adults could be as reasonable and tolerant as these two eight year olds…

  • I kinda skipped the comments, so if this has already been addressed, I implicitly give props to whoever said it.


    I think that Connor was quite wise and astute in the advice. I tell you truly that I know many people who didn’t learn that until much, much, much later. Talking about religion (for or against) DOESN’T net you any gain and it DOES make friends dislike you.

    I mean, I guess Dale has different experiences, but I’ll tell you this. Religious conversations are asking for trouble. Chances are, people AREN’T going to agree (unless they agreed beforehand), so as the conversation progresses, the probability approaches 100% that it’ll just get into a fight over who can shout their premises and conclusions louder than others.

    I am not saying that people should not be open to discussing their religious beliefs (or lacks thereof), or that they should not be comfortable. Because they SHOULD be both open and comfortable. However, I think people should also realize that religious conversation often is not productive conversation. It is often downright infuriating.

    I mean, come on? EVERYONE HERE has had religious conversations with people. You should know intuitively that it isn’t sunshine and daisies. Again, I guess Dale’s experience is different, but where I come from, you do get enemies and adverse effects from some people for these petty, petty differences.

    In the end, my goal is not to have a conversation about atheism and try to get someone to be atheist. My goal is to get *others* to stop pushing religion onto me (in whatever way — conversational, social, legal.) When people push religion onto me, I DO resent them for it…and I know they’d resent me (and atheism) if I tried to push it onto them. So, I don’t do that.

    So, how do I prevent that? By not pushing the conversation.

    I’m really just baffled here. It is perfectly plausible (and not just theoretical, it DOES happen) that people would fall out over a religious conversation that they had. And the shame is it didn’t have to be that way. Because religion really isn’t that important. If no one brought it up, there would have been no impact.

    I’d think I’d rather be known for what good I do than for what I believe or do not believe. So, the good (or bad, even) that I do is really what takes precedence. Religion is really immaterial.

  • Miko

    I think religion is exactly like politics in this regard: no one objects to your discussing religion so long as your religious views fit into a narrow band of Christian orthodoxy; no one objects to your discussing politics so long as your political views fit into a narrow band of Demopublican orthodoxy.

  • littlejohn

    I understand that no one wants to be called a “militant atheist,” but we all know what it means. And, no, you don’t need a rifle to be militant. I’m simply using the dictionary definition. I’m simply referring to a belief strongly held and strongly defended. One can, for example be a militant vegetarian, or even a militant pacifist – although that does sound a bit like jumbo shrimp. Next thing you know, some of us will want to be called “brights” or some such silliness. Oops. I forgot.

  • Aj

    Doesn’t it depend where you are? Atheists are the least trusted minority in the US, but not evenly. In some places it’s worst than what that poll suggests. In some places perhaps all your friends will hate you if you were known to be an atheist.

    If you’re in some Jewish American communities it’s probably not a big deal, there’s probably other atheists. If you’re in some African American communities then “it’s dangerous for our children to even know your philosophy exists”. If you’re in some Catholic or Episcopalian communities then it’s a “shame”. If you’re in some Baptist communities then you need to be “saved” or you’re “amoral”.

    I imagine the size of the community makes a big difference as well, and how much diversity the community is exposed to.

  • Tim

    I think a lot of the commenters in this thread, whether pro or anti godtalk amongst kids are way overshooting the age that this comes up at school. My kids know the religious position of every one of their friends, and have since about the first grade. It’s a good theoretical question, but kids are going to talk about what they talk about at whatever age is occurs to them to talk about it.

    However, I’ve also decided that it’s important that my kids are aware that some of their friends have parents who, upon hearing what they think about god, will perhaps not want them to play with their own kids any more.

  • Kathryn

    WHile I understand the point that the more children talk about it, the more it gives other children a chance to realize that atheist children exist, etc. However, it really can be quite traumatic for them. We live in a very fundy ( mostly Southern Baptist) area. Last year my daughter (age 7, 2nd grade) told some girls on the playground that she didnt believe in god. She was immediately surrounded but girls yelling at her about going to Hell and how she just “had” to believe that Jesus is her savior, etc. She was eventually in tears until some teacher had to break this up. After that day, girls would not play with her at recess, she stopped being invited to parties, etc. That is devastating for a 7 year old girl. And it started to make her hate atheism. What I heard was ” I am not saying we should start believing in god, but I just wish we werent different from everybody else”. My son had a similiar experience at a summer program where once he told the kids they were like literally scared of him and wouldnt play with him. We have now moved them to a new school. A small charter school with a more diverse population. We have told them that it might be best not to bring it up. That if any children directly ask, then not to lie, but to just not try to bring it up if possible. I hate telling them to hide something about themselves, but at the same time, I cant have them friendless and hated. It’s such a sad situation….

  • Assuming they’ll not be putting themselves at risk for it (there are some areas in which this is a distinct possibility) I say let them speak out as they wish. Most religious parents insist their children be loud and proud about their beliefs so why should non-believing children be silent? I’m not suggesting they become little evangelists for atheism, but if the subject comes up there’s no reason they should pretend they don’t have an opinion on it just to maintain the peace.

  • ChameleonDave

    It sounds like good advice to me. In these here parts, religion is a private matter, and it’s considered very rude to bring it up in any situation at all outside of a church.
    I’m an outspoken person, though, so I don’t mind mentioning it occasionally.

  • The Other Tom

    I advise everyone to remember that christians are pushing their children to push christianity on other children at school. If your child is known to be an atheist, they will become a target for prostelizatizn and ridicule.

    I would suggest teaching your child about proper manners about discussing such things, rather than any definite “you should discuss that” or “you should not discuss that”. Teach them about the consequences of discussing it, and the consequences of not discussing it. Help them to be able to make an intelligent decision for themself.

  • Richard Wade

    Children are not little adults. They have completely different priorities. Principles of universal freedom of expression, ideas about all propositions being subject to critical challenge are not high on their agendas. They want to have fun, want to be liked, want to feel accepted and want to feel safe. That is a healthy, normal set of priorities for a kid.

    Some may be more grown-up than others of the same age. That will probably be true their whole lives, but regardless of their age or maturity, they’re going to get consequences for their decisions living in a society steeped in superstition and intolerance for anyone who is different. They’d better be aware of and prepared for those consequences. One can be precocious and still not world-wise.

    In most areas of this country, for a kid to reveal that they are an atheist would be extremely detrimental to their perfectly legitimate kid priorities. They would immediately not be having fun, not be liked, not feel accepted and not feel safe.

    And there are some areas of this country where they would not just feel unsafe, they would be at serious risk.

    Ditto to The Other Tom about teaching them about consequences for speaking up and remaining silent, so they can make informed decisions for themselves.

  • To be fair, talking about politics too much can get all your friends to hate you, too…

  • Tracie F Gib

    Quite often, I think, the term “militant atheist” means someone who is willing to allow their atheist views to be known to someone who disapproves. For example, the kindergarten teacher asks each pupil where their family goes to church. One little girl states that her family does not ever go to any church. The next day, the teacher feels justified in announcing in the teachers’ lounge that the little girls’ parents are militant atheists. That’s how that works.

  • muggle

    Oh, please, my daughter and her little friends always talked about this stuff, from pre-school on up.

    When she came home one day and said mom will I perish I knew some little Christian kid had been at her because that’s the only reason that particular word would have been picked. Someone just learned a buybull verse in Sunday school. I said who said that and she told me and I chuckled and explained that perish was another word for die. We had just dealt with a death and she had come to understand that everyone dies so when I said you will and she will but most likely not until you’re very old, she nodded and understood.

    It’s not violating anything church-state wise if it’s just the kids talking privately and no one’s doing anything like preaching or praying loudly.

    And let me tell you something, when my daughter was growing up, her friends, mostly Christian, would die before they’d let their parents find this out but they mostly didn’t believe either. The doubts they felt free to express to the Atheist kid and many flat out told her they thought it was silly.

    They were all astounded (and very impressed) that she could talk to me about anything at all, no limitations. There were things, not always religion, they did not feel free to discuss with their parents. What a shame.

  • Man, this post is just giving me more reasons to homeschool when I have kids.

  • Laura Lou


    In most areas of this country, for a kid to reveal that they are an atheist would be extremely detrimental to their perfectly legitimate kid priorities. They would immediately not be having fun, not be liked, not feel accepted and not feel safe.

    I really don’t think it’s most areas, is it? I think “extremely detrimental” is a little overstated. It’s hard for me to judge since I grew up in Portland, OR, which is probably one of the most liberal/secular cities in the nation. Here’s what Dale said about this:

    This is exactly what I’ve heard from countless parents–the vast majority of the time, kids engage, they freak out, they move on.

    That’s EXACTLY what happened to me. “…What??? You don’t believe in God? Why? Oh…” And very soon after, it’s forgotten or not mentioned or not acted upon again. I know the danger is there, and it’s worse than mentioning your (i.e. your parents’) political views. Religious fundamentalists often demonize atheist children and their families. You probably know if you live in a place where being an atheist seriously puts your safety at risk, right? I guess I see this as a special circumstance.

  • Libby

    I agree that the ages have been overshot. I decided I was an atheist when I was 12, and I’d been thinking seriously about religion and whether or not I believed it for the past year and a half. Kids can have some pretty deep religious discussions.

    As for losing your friends, I think it really depends on the community and school. If I had been openly an atheist at my Catholic middle school, I wouldn’t have had any friends. But at my Catholic high school on the other side of town, no one really cares, and a lot of my friends are in the atheist/agnostic spectrum. I’ve had some great conversations. So I think it really depends.

  • Richard Wade

    Laura Lou,

    I really don’t think it’s most areas, is it?

    I hope you’re right, but that is not my impression. I grew up in “liberal” California, and in elementary school and up I witnessed shunning, taunting and harassment of kids over religious differences. From that I learned to know when to keep my mouth shut. “Liberal, free, laid-back, tolerant, polycultural” California. You know, the home of Rick Warren, Ray Comfort and Proposition 8.

    Such conflicts may blow over and be forgotten by really small children, but when it comes up again from the 5th grade up through high school, it’s going to last and escalate.

    Certainly school yard bigots are more common in some parts of the country than in others, but it only takes two or three kids in a school to make life miserable for another school kid. The little soldiers of the “Religion of Love” will spread vicious rumors about the atheist kid that have nothing to do with religion, just to get more people hating their target. In junior and senior high schools, rumors are seldom questioned. They’re just spread.

  • My son is 9 now and has a fair amount of friends that are brought up Catholic. In fact most of my friends are either Catholic or Orthodox… my neighbour is an ex-Catholic priest but you would never know it by talking to him… sounds like a deist though. I have digressed. I ask my son not to bring up the subject unless he is asked. My wife will blurt out shit all the time when we have company over. I get annoyed with her too when she does it. Like one time she told catholic friends of our that we found crucifixes all over our house when we moved in and she told them that we got rid of them by placing them into the fireplace… you are inviting a reaction at that point. The only reaction she got was a “YOU DID WHAT?” Never mentioned again. Basically, I don’t want him to shock people with it. So, when he is asked, his response is that he believes in science. Fair enough and straight to the point without going into a godless tirade.

  • I hope you’re right, but that is not my impression. I grew up in “liberal” California, and in elementary school and up I witnessed shunning, taunting and harassment of kids over religious differences.

    I think this must be something that varies quite a bit. I also grew up in California, just outside of San Francisco, and I can’t remember religion ever once coming up as a topic for discussion when I was in elementary school. It was such a non-issue that I was able, until I was 7 or 8, to remain completely unaware of the concept of a god. And that eventual knowledge did not come from my friends at school, but rather from television and books. I know that many of my friends and classmates must have come from religious homes, but it honestly never came up between us on the playground or during playdates.

  • Nan Rosenberry

    I am looking for help with this exact problem. My husband and I have raised our son as an atheist, yet he just came home from 1st grade saying he believes in god because otherwise he is going to the place where nothing good happens. Explaining to him that is just fiction didn’t help…he said he believes “just in case.” I need a support group or books to help please! Where do I start? Thanks! Nan

error: Content is protected !!